Horse racing gets more TV time with other sports on hold

Socially distanced crews in New York and California are keeping horse racing on television in the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic.

Horse racing is one of the few sports ongoing, albeit in a limited capacity at a handful of empty tracks, but its TV presence has expanded because of the dearth of other options. The New York Racing Association helps produce “America’s Day at the Races” on Fox Sports, TVG has partnered with NBC Sports for a dozen hours of coverage each week and the hope is the fledgling industry can stay afloat and gain more exposure during these trying times.

“Horse racing has been a welcome substitute for other events that are currently unavailable,” Fox Sports executive vice-president Mike Mulvihill said. “Viewing of horse racing has tripled over last year. Online sign-ups for new bettors are up. Betting handle at the tracks we present is up. It’s been a nice bit of normalcy when the rest of the sports world is anything but.”

For a sport that usually only garners national attention from the Kentucky Derby through Triple Crown season, horse racing is benefiting from being the only game in town. Total viewership on Fox Sports 1, Fox Sports 2 and NBC Sports Network is up 206% in 2020 from the same time last year.

Different kinds of viewers are tuning in, too, and TVG CEO Kip Levin said the tone of broadcasts changed quickly to accommodate that.

“Hats off to our production and talent team: Literally within days they had shifted from talking to the fan that knew a lot about the sport to talking to and really educating the audience in ways in which we don’t normally do,” Levin said.

More causal bettors are signing up for NYRA’s program, as well as FanDuel Racing. NYRA chief revenue officer Tony Allevato said it had signed up seven times the amount of people over the past three weeks than the rest of the year combined and has offered things like $20 free bets to get beginners familiar with the sport.

New fans are able to get familiar by watching on TV thanks to just a few dozen people working at Belmont Park on Long Island and Southern California studios. NYRA director of TV operations Eric Donovan oversees a third of his usual staff spread out among multiple areas at Belmont Park, while TVG’s usual crew of 45-50 is down to less than 10 people, all in their own workplaces.

On-air broadcasters are either stationed apart on set or working from home. Officials said workers are observing CDC and local guidelines on distancing while doing their jobs to put races on the air.

“We’ve spaced everybody out throughout our TV trucks so that people are not in close proximity with each other, we’re constantly cleaning the facility, so we’re operating in a safe way,” Allevato said.

Live racing at Aqueduct Park in Queens was suspended in mid-March after a backstretch worker tested positive for the coronavirus. Groom Martin Zapata, 63, died in early April from COVID-19 complications.

But non-New York races have always been part of the NYRA broadcasts, and now the racing comes from places like Florida’s Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs, Arkansas’ Oaklawn Park, Oklahoma’s Remington Park and Nebraska’s Fonner Park. Belmont Park’s backstretch remains open for almost 600 workers to take care of the horses, and Allevato said NYRA as a non-profit continues to broadcast races, not to make money but to take care of its employees and help the industry at large.

“We’re keeping them employed, and we’re keeping food on the table for these people,” he said. “We are in horse racing for the long haul, and our goal is to see New York horse racing thrive, and for horse racing to be successful in New York, it needs to be successful across the country and there’s a massive ecosystem that’s involved here with tens and tens of thousands of jobs.”

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